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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The King of Kahel

Tierno Monénembo

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To purchase The King of Kahel

Title: The King of Kahel
Author: Tierno Monénembo
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 289 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The King of Kahel - US
The King of Kahel - UK
The King of Kahel - Canada
Le roi de Kahel - Canada
Le roi de Kahel - France
  • French title: Le roi de Kahel
  • Translated by Nicholas Elliott
  • Awarded the Prix Renaudot, 2008

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Our Assessment:

B : of considerable interest, but also surprisingly plodding

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Humanité . 4/12/2008 Muriel Steinmetz
World Lit. Today . 5-6/2009 Adele King

  From the Reviews:
  • "The power of the novel lies entirely in the resurrection of a bygone age brought back to life through a rich mass of plausible detail and a stunning sense of verisimilitude. Another strong point is the judicious and sustained parallel between two continents and two societies that are poles apart" - Muriel Steinmetz, L'Humanité

  • "In presenting a Frenchman in many ways the opposite of the typical colonialist, Tierno Monenembo has written one of the very few novels by an African told from the point of view of a European. Filled with detailed descriptions and ironic comments on both the Europeans and the Africans, it is an excellent portrait of a moment in the encounter of the two continents." - Adele King, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The King of Kahel is based on historical fact and an historical figure -- Aimé Olivier de Sanderval (1840-1919) -- and that may well be the book's biggest problem. Sanderval's is a good but not great (historical) story, and Monénembo finds himself constrained by it, unable to indulge in anywhere near as much as pure fiction might allow and not given all that much to work with in fact. (I do note and remind readers that my interest in and tolerance for all historical (i.e. fact-based) fiction is on the very low end of the spectrum, and just because it is based on real events wins it no points or allowances from me: the narrative must stand on its own merits.)
       Sanderval was born into a wealthy French family, and from early childhood had dreams and visions of Africa: he wanted to be more than just an explorer: "He had to be king of the savages". This being the mid-19th century, most of the world had already been explored, which is why he set his sights on Africa, which: "remained obscure, extravagant and perfectly unpredictable." And he also is convinced that Africa is a place where the seeds of civilization itself can blossom anew:

Europe is blasé. This is where History has a chance to start fresh.
       While it takes him a while to get things rolling (he's forty by the time: "he could finally turn to the essential: Africa !"), he does have a plan -- of sorts. As one person puts it:
     "If I've understood correctly, you're going to introduce yourself to the Fulas and say, 'My name is Aimé Olivier, give me your kingdom so I can try out my ideas.'"
       The area he has wants to rule is Fouta Djallon (why Fouta Djallon ? "First, because of the name, and second because of the geography"), located in the highlands of Guinea, in western Africa. A Muslim stronghold, it had not been colonized yet by that time -- but, as Sanderval notes:
The age of exploration is over, my poor Jules ! The age of colonization is upon us !
       But Sanderval is no run-of-the-mill colonizer, and certainly no flag-planting nationalist: he wants the country for himself, not France. He doesn't merely want to subjugate whoever is in the way; instead, he's driven by romantic notions of how to civilize the locals and better their lot, and how to lead them towards the (European) ideals of civilization. As it turns out, the locals have a pretty good handle on a lot of things -- especially dealing with foreigners, whom they manage to keep at bay quite effectively -- and when Sanderval makes his foray into their territory it's as much happenstance, charm, and luck that allow him to advance as far as he does. His ideas, on the other hand, don't advance that far -- in large part because the French have their own plans, and he does not figure very well into those: his ideal of a personal fiefdom, under his watch as wise-benevolent ruler, doesn't square with how the French would like to control the region.
       Sanderval does not let go of his obsession:
He lived in Fouta, or rather Fouta lived in him. This was more than a bond, it was fusion; more than a connection, a mystical communion !
       Of course, Realpolitik looks rather different (and ruthless), and when push comes to shove and the French finally decide to take matters properly into their hands it's literally all over in five minutes.
       Monénembo positions Sanderval between Europe and Africa: his third way is, of course, an impossibility, not taken truly seriously by either the French or the African locals. It makes for an interesting character, but too much of Monénembo's narrative bogs down in fact. It's too bad: when Monénembo allows himself free rein -- as he does in many of the details -- the account is often grandly entertaining. But the facts are so limiting that the story ultimately feels straitjacketed, much of its potential held back. Sanderval's passion is reasonably well conveyed, but he remains too flat a figure, too, as Monénembo feels compelled to follow the historic record -- and have Sanderval follow it too. Even as Monénembo tries to shape Sanderval into a full-bodied character -- and not mere representative one -- he does not manage as consistently as the novel demands.
       What's left is a reasonably interesting biographical fiction about an interesting (and largely overlooked) phase of colonialism but, beyond a few fictional flourishes, little more.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 October 2010

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The King of Kahel: Reviews: Other books by Tierno Monénembo under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and about Africa

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About the Author:

       Tierno Monénembo (Thierno Saïdou Diallo) was born in Guinea in 1947. He has written numerous books and currently lives in France.

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